Team Profile: Czech Republic
When I think of the Czech Republic, I think of protests for civil liberties, casual racism and leaving early because your home’s been ransacked.
This is a side, much like my ill-fated family holiday in Prague, that aren’t having the greatest of times on paper. Their golden generation of Nedved, Poborsky, Berger, Jankulovski and Koller (or, as I liked to call him, Peter Crouch with power) have long since bowed out. And their first choice striker Milan Baros, Champions League winner and holder of the Euro 2004 Golden Boot, has scored only two international goals in two years (truly alumni of the Emile Heskey School of Finishing™).
But, much like that holiday, it’s not all bad.
Head coach Michal Bilek and General Manager Vladimir Smicer (remember him?) have built their side around the undeniable talent of Tomas Rosicky, who has found form and fitness just at the right time, much to the relief of a nation. The man occasionally called “Little Mozart” has been in fantastic form since the North London Derby (sigh) and will pull the strings in a probable 4-2-3-1 formation.
Ably assisted by the deep-lying Plasil, they look to get the ball wide, where their first choice full-backs will overlap; Michal Kadlec, left-back for Bayer Leverkusen and penalty-taker extraordinaire, with Theodore Gebre Selassie on the other flank, Czech champion with FC Slovan Liberec and standout in the national team (for some reason).
There is also a large contingent from the Viktoria Plzen side that fought their way to the group stages of the Champions League, only to be rewarded with Barcelona and AC Milan as opposition. Led by exciting midfielder Petr Jiracek (now of Wolfsburg), this block of six players from their home league will be out to prove that no, it wasn’t a fluke, and yes, they are as good as everyone else.
Then we have the most capped goalkeeper in Czech history.
Inept for the first half of the season, impervious for the second, the Man in the Nylon Mask has proved himself the man for the big occasion when it counted. And you don’t get bigger than playing for your country in one of the most competitive international tournaments there is. His side will probably look to him for co-ordinating organisation and discipline, literally making him the foundation that the Czechs will build their campaign on.
No pressure, Petr.
Getting to Ukraine and/or Poland hasn’t exactly been easy, either. Condemned to second place by being drawn with Spain in the qualifiers, they beat Scotland to it with a dubious penalty (step up, Michal Kadlec) and crushed Montenegro in the play-offs. And a six match unbeaten run was recently ended in their final friendly with Hungary, finishing their preparations on a downer.
Watching this side feels less like the finished article and more like the latter stages of a project. Had they been drawn in any other group, this would probably be cited as a learning experience for them. But alongside Greece, Poland and Russia, they will feel they can qualify. Unfortunately for them, so must everyone else in Group A.
Yes, they have misfiring strikers; yes, their top scorer in qualifiers was their penalty taking left-back; and yes this generation still has plenty to prove, but they have to make the best of it. Much like I did in Prague all those years ago.
KEY PLAYER: Petr Cech
FINISHING POSITION: Quarter-finals